Inside the Mind of a Financial Aid Officer

Ever wonder how financial aid really works? Jonathan Pagano of Where to Find Money for College did some digging and found out.

It’s not very often that you get the opportunity to talk to a financial aid officer, and even rarer that one will talk freely and openly about how the financial aid process works from their perspective. How does financial aid work? I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to find out! I had the pleasure of interviewine Heather Clifford, director of financial aid at Bennington College, a small liberal arts college in Bennington, Vermont.

A little background about the college first. Bennington was chartered in 1932. Originally an all women’s college, it was the first to include visual and performing arts in their curriculum. Another interesting fact about Bennington is that it is the only college to require that students spend a term, every year, at work in the world in their field of study. I like that concept.

Who is the financial aid officer?

One of the most important things I found out, after speaking with Heather, are the traits of a good financial aid officer. The primary one is that they have a heart for students. Now, this may not be the case at every college, but it is the case at many. They are willing to do what they can to help deserving students attend their institution. Heather told me that a good financial aid officer is someone who is a good listener, someone who can look at what’s possible for a particular student given their history and anxieties about the future, and someone who is able to look at the big picture. Being sensitive to a student while at the same time being fiscally responsible to the college is key. 

These insights shed new light on who the financial aid officer really is. It threw humanity into the mix. It made me realize that students aren’t dealing with unemotional robots or computers who are making decisions based strictly on a few numbers spit out after completing the FAFSA. Many are caring individuals. This is important for you to know. Applying to colleges where financial aid officers display these characteristics will make this entire financial aid process a more pleasant experience and may actually improve your financial aid award.

The financial aid award

I then followed up with questions related to how a financial aid award is structured and again was surprised by some of the detail. For Bennington, the starting point is the cost of attendance which include direct costs (those costs billed directly by the college, such as tuition, room and board, and mandatory fees) and indirect costs (those not billed by the college, such as books, supplies, personal expenses, and travel). Students are eligible to get financial aid up to their total cost of attendance.

The next thing that is looked at is the student’s expected family contribution, or EFC. Heather made it clear that colleges are not allowed to go beyond that EFC amount in need-based aid, so the EFC is subtracted from the cost of attendance. Then, at Bennington, merit aid is applied to the difference first. Institutional scholarships are added first and then outside scholarships or resources are applied. What’s remaining is the student’s financial need.

It’s at this point, according to Heather, that financial aid actually kicks in. Self help aid would be applied in the form of loans and work study, then other need-based aid is applied. That’s how it’s done at Bennington. My experience tells me that other colleges have variations of this. They will all start with the cost of attendance and apply the EFC first. How they then apply aid and in what order may vary. This is another important thing for you to know about the colleges to which you are applying. If you do not have financial need it will not be an issue. If you do have financial need and will be receiving merit aid, how it’s applied may make a big difference in your final award and out-of-pocket costs.

Appealing your award

We then discussed the appeal process and, again, each college is unique in how they consider a financial aid award appeal. You will have to find out what the appeal procedure is at the colleges you are applying to. At Bennington you need to complete an appeals form. They also have a committee that meets weekly to consider appeals.

The main point here is that you need to be honest and open about your resources. Be clear with the financial aid office. If you tell them you need a “little more,” your definition and theirs may be completely different: you may think $5,000 is a little more and they may be thinking a little more is $500. As an example, you are better off letting them know that based on your resources you will need an extra $4,800. That would be specific and clear. Heather explained that they will then know what they are dealing with and can better address your needs.

Professional judgment

During an appeal the financial aid office can exercise what is called “professional judgment,” and Heather clarified what that is. This is a process where the financial aid office will consider items that are not included in the FAFSA. The FAFSA is cut and dry, numbers in and numbers out with no opportunity for explanation. The appeal process is also an opportunity to address items that would affect your EFC, and professional judgment, if exercised, would alter your EFC.

Understand that, if a college is going to exercise professional judgment, they are actually “sticking their neck out” for the student and will need documentation from you to support any adjustments. Heather pointed out one common mistake on the FAFSA where appealing would be important. If you rolled over a 401k, it shows up on your tax return as a distribution and the FAFSA views it as untaxed income. This could dramatically increase your EFC and lower your financial need even though those funds are being rolled into an IRA and are not actually available for college. She did make it clear that all appeal points would be considered with the exception of a continuing student who has a disciplinary action. Also, consumer credit card debt or high mortgage payments would not be a strong appeal point either. 

Not all colleges will exercise professional judgment. If you have legitimate appeal points, it’s critical that you make sure you are applying to colleges that will use professional judgment.

The final bit of advice

Heather’s advice is to do your own homework. Determine what it is you are looking for and what you want to get out of your college experience. Don’t overlook the private colleges: they just may be more affordable than in-state public schools. For the colleges you are looking at, check to see how generous they are by researching what they are giving to incoming freshmen on average. Students must speak up and advocate for themselves. Talk to your guidance counselors, reach out for resources, and, most important, believe in yourself!

So if you’ve ever asked, “How does financial aid work?” and now have a deeper understanding, thank Heather Clifford. I appreciate her time and willingness to explain how the financial aid process works. Her passion for her work and the students whose lives are affected by her decisions were what impressed me most. She exemplified that core group of financial aid officers who are the real deal—flesh-and-blood caring individuals who truly desire to have a big impact on the lives of college students!

Thanks to John Pagano of Where to Find Money for College for sharing his findings, which can also be found on his blog.

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About Jonathan Pagano

Jonathan Pagano launched Where to Find Money for College in an effort to help students and their parents figure out how to get as much financial assistance as possible for their education. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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